Dating back to the mid-20th century and founded by the late Sheikh Shakhbut bin Sultan Al Nahyan of Abu Dhabi, UAE, on the palm-lined road linking Al Ain’s Al Qattara and Al Jimi oases, stands the historic Souq Al Qattara. A 35 meter roofed passage that features 19 shops on both sides, this souq is reminiscent of erstwhile open-air marketplaces where merchants and artisans offered a range of items for sale. A natural meeting place, souqs hosted festivals, cultural and social activities.
The Souq Al Qattara in Al Ain, Abu Dhabi highlights the oasis’ traditional construction methods with its adobe floors, thick walls with ventilation for light and air and palm wood and leaves roof, all traditional materials drawn from the local environment. The adobe houses were widely used until the discovery of oil in 1950s. Restored as a historic landmark, the Souq Al Qattara provides a link to a material heritage that reflects the land, its history and its people.
National Handicrafts Festival
Souq Al Qattara has been renovated and was re-opened in 2012 on the 41st UAE National Day. To celebrate the culture and handicraft traditions of the Emirates, the second edition of the National Handicraft Festival was held at Souq Al Qattara in Al Ain from 29th October to 7th November 2015. The handicrafts festival is a showcase of traditions from across the UAE, inspiring the young generations by defining, preserving and promoting Emirati handicrafts, underlining their importance as an integral part of Emirati national identity. This year’s festival saw a showcase of traditional handicrafts such as Khous (weaving palm fronds into lattice patterns), Sadu weaving (made with wool and regional materials) and Telli embroidery (using colorful threads to create motifs to embellish dresses for women). A textile made of yarn, telli is placed on the sleeves and bodices of traditional Emirati clothing. The telli is most commonly made from a single thread in the UAE.
Other cultural elements at the festival included Arabic ‘Gahwa’ coffee making, Children’s Al Yolla traditional dance, Al Harbiyah dance, Rebaba music, Al Shillah and the Al Ayala, a prominent traditional Emirati dance accompanied by drums. It includes two rows of performers facing each other, with the leader of the ensemble playing a big drum, Alkaser, which sets the beat for the smaller Alrahmaneyat drums. Al Ayala drummers and dancers perform using palm wood sticks, which they move with the beat of the drums while other types of drum are played with hands, or sticks and hands together.
Food, Spices and Pottery
Souq Al Qattara was once called ‘the turmeric souq’ and ‘al roqaa souq’, as it was a popular place to purchase the fragrant spice and was located in the Al Roqaa district. In the early days the Souq shops carried no signs or licenses, as the owner of each shop was well known in the community. Flour, rice, coffee, sugar, salt, cardamom and saffron were all sold in the market.
In the past a date room or madbasa, where shops number 12 and 14 are currently located, was used to store stacks of dates. Their juice, called dibs, would trickle through a network of channels set into the floor and be collected in a pottery jar. Ancient pottery was found in the UAE by a Danish expedition in the late 1950s, during a visit to Umm An-Nar Island in Abu Dhabi. Pottery from the Bronze Age (2700 BCE) to modern times has been found in Al Ain and other sites across the Emirates.
Ongoing Activities at the Souq
A Traditional Handicrafts Market takes place at the Souq Al Qattara every Thursday, Friday and Saturday from October to May, encouraging local families to preserve and promote UAE’s heritage through an active production of traditional handicrafts. The Souq is linked to the redeveloped Al Qattara Fort, now home to a popular arts center, featuring hundreds of modern exhibits, workshops, a cafe and a library.